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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Use plain English for nonnative speakers, accurate translations

I frequently encourage use of plain-language methods and principles to make sure documents are clear, concise, easy to read, and understandable.

But using plain language also helps readers with limited English proficiency and people who translate English documents. As the United States becomes more diverse, and as we communicate even more with people in other cultures, using plain language will be essential. 

To ensure accuracy and quality in all translations, you or your organization should thoroughly review English materials, before translation, to assess whether the information is well written, clear, and accurate. Is it using simple language that is easily translatable?

However, an important reference book on writing to meet the needs of nonnative speakers and translators provides this Cardinal Rule of Global English

Don't make any change that will sound unnatural to native speakers of English.
So, either improve the sentence in a different way or leave it alone.

My Plain English Writing Guide provides advice for writing and designing documents to meet the needs of all your readers. But here I'll highlight things to consider to meet the needs of translators and nonnative speakers.

Focusing on your reader and purpose

Will your readers include many members of specific cultural groups? Is English their second language? Will some or many of your readers have limited English proficiency and usually speak, read and write in Spanish, Japanese or another language? Is it likely that your document will need to be translated into one or more other languages?

Are you trying to change people's behavior? Make sure you mention how even small changes can bring benefits that are important to your reader. Will there be skepticism? You'll need to provide more evidence to support your conclusions and recommendations than you normally would.

Is the document a "how-to" text? Be sure it includes any background information needed to understand your instructions.

Organizing your ideas

Choose information to include and to leave out. Cut points and information not clearly relevant to your program or project. Cutting nonessential information will also save time for you, your reviewers and editors, your readers, and people or vendors translating your document into another language. Ask yourself, "Do I really need to say this?"

Usually, make your main point easy to find--at the beginning of your document. Tell your readers early: what your conclusion is, what you want them to do, or whatever your main purpose is for your document. 

Organize the rest of your document into sections of related information. Try to start each section with its main point. Help your readers move from section to section with headings and subheadings about the content in each section or block of related information.

Writing clear, effective paragraphs

Limit each paragraph to one topic unless you are linking related points. Complicated information, or a discussion of several topics, usually needs to be broken into separate paragraphs to be easily understood. 

You can also break up complicated text or make parallel points clear and easy to remember by using indented, vertical lists. Put a bullet or number before each item in the list.

Writing clear, simple sentences

The simple, declarative sentence is the easiest to understand: Someone (or something) does (or is) something. Sentences that differ from that simple structure may cause readability problems.

Be logical, literal and precise in your use of language. Especially for readers who may have limited English proficiency, pay close attention to the literal meaning of each sentence you write and the words in them. 

Short, simple sentences are less likely than long, compound and complex sentences to include ambiguities that hinder translation and reduce readability. Make the average sentence length in your document 20 words.

Try to limit most sentences to one idea. Break long sentences with more than one idea into two or more sentences.

Use active voice verbs--unless there's a strong reason to use passive. Putting the "doer"--the person or thing doing the action in a sentence--in front of its verb will usually ensure the verb is in the active voice. 

Especially for readers with limited English proficiency, try repeating nouns instead of referring to them with pronouns like she, they, this or these. Also, avoid using the pronouns this, that, these and those alone; instead, use them as adjectives before a noun: What do you think of this model? Not: What do you think of this?

Inserting optional commas after introductory phrases and before conjunctions (and, but, or) in a series of things can help, especially to language translators and readers with limited English proficiency.

Also, hyphens are not needed after most prefixes, but they can reduce confusion when used in similar or unfamiliar words: She recovered her health. She re-covered the torn seat. Avoid using hyphens to divide a word at the end of a line in unjustified text. Use of hyphens in compound words can aid reader understanding: He is a small-business man. He is a foreign-car dealer.

Using appropriate words

Choose common English words with clear meanings: explain a problem instead of address a problem; invisible, open or obvious instead of transparent. 

Especially if your document may have many readers with limited English proficiency or be translated for them, choose words with just one or a few clear meanings. Also avoid puns and words with double meanings: voters instead of grassroots; available instead of free (if that's what you mean).

Avoid using wordy phrases and multiple words with similar meanings or unhelpful redundancies. For example, try protrude, not protrude out; either if or when, not if and when; result, not end result; square, not square in shape; experience, not past experience; demolished, not totally demolished; visible, not visible to the eye; complete or finished, not completely finished; four hours, not four hours of time; 5 feet high, not 5 feet in height.

Using unfamiliar jargon can cause problems because your reader may not understand it. Jargon also can distract your reader from your real message. Write boots, not leather personnel carriers; telephone, not telephonic communications instrument; advocate for the homeless, not homeless advocate; next to or near, not adjacent to; make easy or help or lead, not facilitate.

Also, avoid terms that could be misunderstood by readers who use English as a second language or by people translating a document from English into another language. Such terms include military and sports vocabularylevel playing field, end runs, targets, game plans, sticky wickets, tackle; and regionalisms and slangthat dog don’t hunt; jury-rig or jerry-built. They also include literary and cultural allusionsheart on his sleeve, move mountains, an offer he can’t refuse; and metaphorsa steep learning curve, a piece of cake, pave the way for.

Avoid or explain technical words or difficult terms. Whenever possible, avoid words that your readers do not know. If you must use a technical term, define it--either by giving a definition, explaining the term or by giving an example.

Also, use verbs instead of abstract nounsconsider instead of consideration, adjust instead of adjustment, recommend instead of recommendationimprove instead of improvement.

Remember that not everyone may know what the acronyms and abbreviations stand for. Avoid nonessential abbreviations, Latin abbreviations, uncommon contractions and obscure acronyms, especially in documents that may be translated for or used by readers with limited English proficiency. Also, avoid informal nonstandard spellings and shortened words.

Here are some examples:

Instead of ...
Try using ...
also known as
as soon as possible, soon [or be specific about time]
could've, should've, would've
could have, should have, would have
for example, such as
and so on, and the rest
that is
hi, lo
high, low
lb., oz.
pound, ounce
mightn't, mustn't
might not, must not
n.a., N/A
not applicable, not available, none
repetition, representative
that will
veteran, veterinarian

Use capital letters sparingly, consistently. Capital letters are an important cue to readers and translators that a term is a proper noun, not a common noun. 

Random, excessive capitalization for other purposes hinders reading and may confuse readers. Do not capitalize the first letter of a word or words in a phrase simply to highlight them or to express their importance. Translators typically translate common nouns and leave proper nouns in English.

Testing for clarity

Before completing and distributing a significant document, make sure you test what you write. Have others read and comment on the document? Have you tested it with your targeted readers? Is it clear to them? Does it make sense? Do they get your point? Do you get the response you were seeking?

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